“Here’s to alcohol, the cause of, and solution to, all life’s problems.” (Homer Simpson)

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about novels featuring dinner parties with truly horrible people. If you thought that post was depressing…welcome to its companion piece, all about alcoholics. Happy New Year!

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So, alcohol seemed an obvious theme for a new year’s post, but I apologise in advance for just how bleak my choices are. Excellently written novels, but on finishing them I did wonder if there were enough kittens on YouTube to aid my recovery…

Firstly, Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky by Patrick Hamilton (1929-1934) a trilogy of novels about people who work in and frequent The Midnight Bell pub on the Euston Road between the two World Wars. The trilogy begins with barman Bob:

“The gas-lit walls and objects around him were heavy with his own depression – the depression of one who awakes from excess in the late afternoon. Only at dawn should a man awake from excess – at dawn agleam with red and sorrowful resolve. The late, dark afternoon, with an evening’s toil ahead, affords no such palliation.”

Bob is frustrated writer who never does any writing, and he falls for Jenny, a prostitute. As he pursues her, the reader can see so clearly what Bob cannot: that he will never win her, and she will only suck him financially dry. Hamilton is a sensitive and non-judgemental writer, and so the reader isn’t positioned to judge Bob for his stupidity nor Jenny for her avarice. Instead we are shown that Bob is deluded, and pushing his fantasies onto Jenny. For her, this is a common occurrence, she is paid to be what men want her to be.  When Bob comes to his senses, he doesn’t judge her harshly:

“He believed it was not her fault. Existence had abused her and made her what she was; poverty had crushed him and made him unable to help her. He knew he had never made any impression on her, and never would have done so. He knew that it had all come from him, and only the obsession and hysteria of pursuit had given a weak semblance of reciprocation.”

It is a sad tale, about the capacity to lie to ourselves, and the fantasies used to hide from life. Hamilton does inject humour at times to lighten the tale slightly:

“ ‘Talking to those Prostitutes,’ said Ella…

Her violent stress upon the first syllable of this word implied a differentiation between a large class of almost venial Titutes, and another branch of the same class, designated Pros, and beyond the pale.”

Ultimately, though, a sense of sad, quiet desperation pervades.

The second tale goes back in time to show how Jenny became a sex worker. She is frustrated by the restraints on women’s behaviour and life choices at this time. But then Jenny discovers the love of her life, alcohol:

“This was her ruin – she was getting drunk again. This was the turning point of her life. If she lost her will now she had lost all. Yet why not? With one word of assent she could be lifted from undreamed of woe to undreamed of bliss – step out from her deep unhappiness as from a garment. She could be free of all care. She could have a grand time.”

And we know where this takes her. Like Bob, Jenny seeks an escape into something which cannot sustain her. Unlike Bob, she does not move on, and her life becomes hopeless.

The third tale belongs to Ella, running parallel to Bob’s. Ella is different, in that she is a realist, and has somehow managed not to give up all hope. She is in love with Bob but knows he will never feel the same. She is courted by an older man, whom she considers marrying, despite her misgivings, as she knows he will help support her dissolute mother:

“ ‘Call me Ernest in Ernest, eh!’ said Mr Eccles.  ‘That’s rather a good one. I must remember that.’

Oh dear, thought Ella, if that was his idea of a good one, it was a poor outlook for the more frothy side of their proposed future as an engaged couple.”

Hamilton gives Ella the most humour in her voice, and I was really rooting for her not to marry Eccles (despite it meaning she would adopt his excellent cakey name), not to despair and not to give up.

 “The Ring, and after eight weeks, enslavement for life – a life of Sundays in which she walked respectably round Regent’s Park with this rather elderly, rather good-looking, arch, often irritable, self-conscious bowler-hatted maniac who had never rightly understood a single thought going on in her head!”

I finished Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky feeling, frankly, depressed. This is an indication of its excellence though: the characters are believable, the portrayals sensitive, the writing sharply observed.

The BBC adapted Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky in 2006. I saw it at the time and from my memory it was very good. Some kind soul has uploaded all 3 episodes to YouTube and it stars the wonderful Sally Hawkins as the luckless Ella, so definitely worth a look.

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Secondly, Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr (1957-1968) a beat generation classic set amongst the drug addicts, sex workers and hustlers of Brooklyn. Despite being a hugely famous book, I really had no idea what I was getting into. Hence: a trigger warning of extreme subject matter to follow. The lives Selby depicts are unrelenting in their brutality and extreme violence. Each section focuses on a different character, beginning with Georgette, a transsexual prostitute:

“Her life didnt revolve, but spun centrifugally, around stimulants, opiates, johns (who paid her to dance for them in womens panties then ripped them off her; bisexuals who told their wives they were going out with the boys and spent the night with Georgette (she trying to imagine they were Vinnie)), the freakish precipitate coming to the top.”

Poor Georgette is fundamentally a romantic, who desperately wants to be loved, but looks for it in all the wrong places. To be honest, I couldn’t see that anyone would find even a grain of human kindness in Selby’s Brooklyn, let alone love. Selby’s style is stream of consciousness, avoiding punctuation so as not to disrupt the flow, in an attempt to capture the authentic voices of the characters. He does this brilliantly, and his artfulness does not disrupt from the sense of chaos in the character’s lives. The style is perfect for the story he wants to tell.

Selby has great feeling for the people whose lives he wants to depict. He does not judge them, but tries to present their lives truthfully without sentimentality. He certainly has more compassion for them than they have for themselves:

“his disgust seeming to wrap itself around him as a snake slowly, methodically and painfully squeezing the life from him, but each time it reached the point where just the slightest more pressure would bring an end to everything; life, misery, pain, it stopped tightening, retained the pressure and Harry just hung there his body alive with pain, his mind sick with disgust.”

In all honesty, this was nearly a rare DNF for me. Not because it was a terrible book, but because it was just an unrelentingly tough read. There is a horrific depiction of rape at one point, of Tralala, a prostitute, and I just didn’t know if I could go on. Apparently Selby himself had to go to bed for two weeks after writing that story. What kept me going was that Selby is a great writer, and I’m glad I did, (despite then having to read about the crucifixion of a paedophile) because the last section of the book was my favourite. It is a montage piece cutting across various inhabitants in the course of a day, and really gives a sense of the neighbourhood and the lives therein. Ada in particular was very affecting – a grieving, eccentric widow, desperately lonely and sitting outside on a bench all day:

“Ada almost yelled at them, but stopped as she noticed that now women were coming down and people were going to the store and children were running and laughing and the sun was getting brighter and warmer and a few men straddled a bench with a checker board between them and maybe someone would sit down next to her and they would talk.”

So, an incredibly powerful piece of writing, but one that I’m glad is over for me. Last Exit to Brooklyn was also adapted into a film, in 1989. I always try and avoid absolute resolutions, but I feel fairly safe saying there is no way I will ever be watching it…

To end, a question for you Reader: why is it when people say “Why does no-one write songs with stories anymore?” (which is true) they so often follow up the comment with “You know, like Richard Marx?” It’s very distressing, because after I’ve finished rending my garments, I have physically restrain them and force them to listen to Leonard Cohen and Squeeze. Here is a song about an alcoholic by the much-underrated band. Not their finest, but so apt for this post. I don’t really worry about my drinking, but the lyric “Like some kind of witch, with blue fingers in mittens/She smells like the cats, and the neighbours she sickens” does make me worry that Glenn Tillbrook has seen my future… where did I put those YouTube kittens?

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16 thoughts on ““Here’s to alcohol, the cause of, and solution to, all life’s problems.” (Homer Simpson)

  1. Excellent post and I’m pleased (for myself) to report that Homer’s quote didn’t apply to me today (the cause part anyway – I was well-behaved last night).

    I haven’t read either of the books you chose and probably not sure I’d tackle Last Exit. Many years ago I read Augusten Burrough’s memoir, Dry, about hi battle with alcohol. It was bizarre and memorable reading experience because I became so engrossed in the book that having a drink myself felt like falling off the wagon. I was quite pleased when it was over so that I could pour myself an occasional gin and tonic without guilt.

    So, on that note, cheers to plenty of good books in 2017!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was well-behaved too – I can smugly distance myself from those feeling the worse for wear, for today at least 😉

      Last Exit is such a tough read, I’m not sure I would have read it if I’d known exactly what I was getting into 😦 I haven’t read Dry but I’ll look out for it.

      Definitely cheers to many great books in 2017!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A fabulously depressing post, thank you, Madame Bibi. Especially for the 10 minute backbone stiffener of cute kits. I Love Hamilton, and 20, 000 is a brilliant and heartbreaking read. I ended up buying the BBC adaptation which i thought splendid. Wept my way through that as well as the book. And, everything you say about the Selby. Stunning, but rather like poking oneself in the eye with a needle repeatedly whilst performing open heart surgery on oneself without anaesthetic.

    I have a curious relationship with alcohol at a remove in that I worked for some years with people who had difficulties around it, and what took me there in the first place was a close friend with an alcohol problem who fortunately came out the other side.

    Everyone experiences deep pain in their lives, as well as, hopefully deep joy. We crave the latter and do anything we can to avoid the former; we all have methods which we think work for us to deal with that pain. Some methods, the using of brain altering chemicals, legal or illegals can be particularly deadly for the susceptible. I ended up feeling quite fortunate in discovering early that brain altering chemicals always seemed to make me feel the pain more, if that pain were emotional, so I didn’t go down the route of some kind of external chemical cosh for pain relief. At least running away from internal and external pain in the pages of a good book, whilst it is sometimes (for me) another method of denial, doesn’t shorten your life and make you, potentially, a danger to yourself and others!

    Kitten videos, of course, useful the same way, and 10 minutes of kits really does make the world a happier place. I’m a little disappointed that my own senior cats didn’t respond to the kitten squeaks at all. I think they have understood that some reality is only virtual, and, if it sounds like a kitten but doesn’t smell like a kitten…..it probably isn’t a kitten.

    Happy New Year. May it be filled with wonderful things, and, for those moments less than wonderful, good books and a ready supply of kittens (or at least, their videos)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Lady F! Hamilton was really wonderful, I want to read more of his novels now for sure. And I definitely plan to re-watch the BBC adaptation. Your description of the Selby is both pithy and perfect! It’s one of the toughest reads I’ve ever experienced.

      That’s very interesting about your work. Alcohol can be a pleasure (I do like wine and scotch) but so destructive. I lived with an alcoholic and to this day I can’t stand the smell of dark rum (his tipple of choice). Although the quote I chose from Homer is funny, it definitely captures the double edged sword and false promise alcohol offers.

      I have a very similar experience to you in that I find mind-altering substances don’t really work for me, If I’m sad, they don’t take the sadness away, or even enable me to really forget how I’m feeling. I do believe addictions are self-medication, but for me, books are the best self-medication. getting lost in someone else’s story always helps! And as you say, they are definitely a healthier option, for yourself and those around you!

      My elderly cats also don’t respond to the kitty videos – they do love birds on Countryfile though 🙂

      Happy New Year to you Lady F, wishing you many breath-taking reads and may any less-than-wonderful moments be few and far between!

      Like

    • The Hamilton was great, definitely one for re-read if you felt inclined. I’m not sure I’d be in a hurry to read more Selby, accomplished though he is… I may have to move on to YouTube puppies if I did, having exhausted all the kittens!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m hoping to read another Hamilton soon, probably Hangover Square as it’s on my list for the Classics Club. Loved his Slaves of Solitude when I read it a couple of years ago – he does bleakness so well.

    Happy New Year to you, Madame Bibi – wishing you a wonderful 2017!

    Liked by 1 person

    • This was the first Hamilton I’d read and I was so impressed. I’ll look out for Slaves of Solitude and await your review of Hangover Square 🙂

      Happy New Year to you too Jacqui, wishing you wonderful reads throughout a great 2017!

      Like

  4. Not enough recognition is given the kind souls who upload things to Youtube! I shall definitely be checking that out, I always find sad things easier to watch than read, things are more real in my head than when being played by an actor, especially one I know, which makes the whole thing more fun. I just saw Sally Hawkins in Great Expectation as Pip’s awful big sister, she was great. And she gave Paddington Bear a home, too! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am so grateful to the uploaders of YouTube – they have done me great service over the years (and caused probably years of my life to be lost to video viewing, now I think of it) Hope you enjoy the 20,000 Streets adaptation!

      I totally agree its easier to watch than read sad things – books really get inside my head much more than TV or films, even though those can be really powerful too. I’ve not seen Paddington or the GE adaptation with Sally Hawkins in, but I’m sure she was wonderful 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh, dear, oh, dear! Last Exit is on my classics club list and now I know I’m going to hate it!! Thank goodness for kitten vids! Though my own little kitten is currently wearing the cone of shame and hates me – so she’s neither cute nor funny at the moment…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Well, there’s certainly no shortage of depressing books about alcoholics, are there? Luckily, there’s also no shortage of cute kitten videos on the internet. Maybe the world would be a better place if we were all required to watch 5 minutes of cute kitten videos every day!

    Liked by 1 person

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